Too often, I run into faith-based organizations that seem embarrassed in the presence of secular funders, as though the faith aspect of their work were a liability. Instead, I think we need to consider why being faith-based is a reason to hold our heads up, why it strengthens our case rather than undermines it. Here are a few thoughts to help you make that case.
Congregations have built-in resources that other kinds of nonprofits may not. If your organization is a church or is partnered with churches, you probably have a built-in constituency of potential volunteers through the church. Nationwide, one-third of all those who volunteer give their time within and for religious organizations, totaling 12 million hours of volunteer time annually.1 Studies indicate that people who participate in a congregation are much more likely to volunteer, in part because opportunities to volunteer are presented to them on a regular basis and because community service has become the norm for many congregations. It’s been my own experience, too, that it is easier to recruit a group of volunteers from within a congregation than from outside it.
Access to space in church buildings may be another plus for a faith-based organization. Church buildings may not be fully occupied or may not be used during the week, creating an opportunity for other groups to share office or program space. Space in a church may be free or at least less expensive than other types of space in your area. Also, church buildings often have features that other facilities do not. Where else can you find lots of meeting space, offices, an industrial kitchen, a gymnasium, and a performance space (the sanctuary-or, often, a large fellowship hall with a stage), all in the same facility? You won’t find all of that in every church building, but in many you will, making it possible to pursue all kinds of programming that you couldn’t do elsewhere.
And don’t forget the financial base for your ministry that a church can provide, either through gifts from individual donors, through the church budget, or both. These types of gifts can leverage other kinds of support. When I worked for one church-based nonprofit, financial gifts from the members of the partner congregation helped leverage several large grants from local foundations. Church members gave gifts ranging from 50 cents to over $2,000, and all of these gifts indicated significant community support for our programs to local funders. This giving helped to sway grant decisions our way a number of times.
It’s also good to remember that the resources available through faith communities can extend well beyond an individual congregation. Because your work is faith-based, you may be able to develop relationships with a whole network of partner churches, with their own people, money, and other resources to add to the mix. Your ministry may also be able to build relationships with local, regional, or national denominational offices, some of which have grant programs to support certain kinds of ministries.
Another advantage of faith-based organizations is that they may be more accessible to community residents than other types of nonprofits. For example, families in crisis may feel more comfortable approaching the church than a government agency or a secular nonprofit. Part of this comfort level with the church is that a pastor or other member of the church staff may be seen as more sympathetic than people outside the church. And churches often have a long-standing presence in the community that can make it seem the most familiar and safest place to go. Faith-based nonprofits that are not churches may enjoy these advantages as well. I have worked in several communities where ministry nonprofits developed trust with community residents much more readily than secular nonprofits, often because of the witness and commitment of the staff.
Although the spiritual content of ministries can be controversial, it’s also a selling point. More and more evidence points to the premise that some issues or problems are best dealt with using a faith-based approach. Even people outside the faith community are beginning to believe that God may be a key part of helping some people recover from addiction or illness, take responsibility for their families, and turn their lives around. Some research into faith-based health approaches, for example, shows a link between prayer and healing.
Some scholars have identified holistic ministry as more effective than government programs when a group is working with people who live in poverty and on welfare, precisely because ministry addresses the moral and spiritual issues as well as material needs. Public-policy changes are not enough, because they can’t bring about personal transformation. Holistic ministry, in contrast, addresses the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual state of the whole person.
Another advantage of working with church congregations is the social capital they provide. Social capital, in this case, is the networks and relationships formed between people in the church, giving members connections to all sorts of resources like jobs, loans, housing, cars, day care, and counseling. In many churches, you can just put the word out about what you need, and someone will turn up who can help you or who knows someone who can. I’ve found that this social capital aspect of the church is particularly important for people who live in poverty. Poverty can be isolating, separating the people who live in it from the kind of networking relationships that would help them get needed resources. If your ministry focuses on children or adults who live in poverty, connecting them to the social capital of a congregation will only serve to enhance your program.
Sing Your Own Praises
Being in the midst of launching and running a faith-based organization can make it difficult to see what progress you’re making. In my years as an executive director, I felt as though I was in the middle of a whirlwind, always being pulled and pushed by the immediate issues at hand. I remember being acutely aware of everything we weren’t getting to—the programs we wanted to launch, the money we wanted to raise, the systems we needed to create. In this environment, it’s difficult to take a step back and see all that you’ve accomplished.
Though it’s difficult to sing your own praises, be sure to do it. Take the time and create the space to see how far you’ve come. Make a list of your ministry’s accomplishments, stick it to the wall, and keep adding to the list as you make progress. Always take time to review accomplishments at your staff and board meetings. However you do it, be sure to keep those accomplishments in view.
1Ram A. Cnaan, The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 284.
photo by Deeleea on Flickr
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